Self-deprecation is a seemingly unlimited renewable resource that helps fuel humorous personal essays. Bragging and sanctimony won’t get you very far, but self-mockery can be surprisingly transporting. Not self-loathing, but the ability to make light of one’s shortcomings.
Readers can relate and feel better about themselves. Think about David Sedaris making fun of his French; Sloane Crosley making fun of locking herself out of her apartment twice in one day; Nora Ephron making fun of her neck.
Add to that company Melanie Gideon. In The Slippery Year, she charts her deficiencies, from culinary indifference to being a timid “wuss,” with endearing good humor.
Structured into 12 monthly essays that take her through a year of personal challenges, “The Slippery Year” explores Gideon’s nagging dissatisfaction with her life, a lack of wholehearted appreciation she finds all the more distressing because she recognizes how fortunate she is. But at 44, with a 9-year-old son and a marriage plagued by little more than snoring, the Oakland-based writer feels the tug of mortality and wonders why simple pleasures and lovely moments aren’t enough to satisfy her.
Gideon writes in her introduction, “One day when I was sitting in the carpool line waiting to pick up my son from school, it occurred to me that I had been sleepwalking through my life.... I felt empty – an unrelenting, existential kind of emptiness. By all markers I was living a happy enough existence, but somehow I wasn’t feeling it.... How had I slipped away? And most important, could I pull myself back?”
It’s a feeling many readers are likely to recognize – and will be delighted to find treated with humor and heart.
Gideon, an author of young adult fantasy novels, made what she calls the A-Team when the first chapter of this book appeared (in slightly different form) in the Modern Love column of The New York Times. Its opening line is a winner: “Whenever my husband casually says, ‘Hey, Hon, come take a look at this Web site,’ I know it’s going to cost me.” The purchase in question is a huge camping van, and what it underscores is Gideon’s increased reluctance for adventure and her realization that she’s afflicted with “an odd kind of claustrophobia that isn’t about the physical space I’m in, but the sheltered life I’m living.”
Other chapters deal with worries about aging and insecurities about her looks – including an hilarious account of her lifelong struggle to tame her unruly half-Indian, half-Armenian hair with Japanese thermal straightening; overcoming her panic at sending her son to sleepaway camp or watching him lose at lacrosse; her neurotic need to be first in the carpool line; and losing the family dog.
Gideon derides her unwillingness to take risks, but what her book demonstrates is a brave gameness, not just for self-deprecation, but also for self-exposure. “I look for community, yet I shy away from intimacy,” Gideon writes in one of the unguarded, sincere statements she slips in among her quips and jabs. “And then I wonder why, despite all the fine people in my life, I am so lonely. The kind of lonely I have no right to feel.”
Reaching for the moving epiphany, she occasionally slides into sentimentality – particularly in her closing chapter. She’s best when she cuts the serious with the comic, as in this deft sequence: “An hour after your family has left the house, you love them with a piercing intensity that was nowhere to be found when you were scraping egg off their breakfast dishes. Your hope is to one day feel this way about them when they’re in the room. This is a pretty lofty goal.”
As confessional writers like Ayelet Waldman (“Bad Mother”) can attest, it’s risky business opening yourself up to censure from what Waldman calls the “Bad Mother cops.” To be sure, some will dismiss Gideon’s woes as luxury complaints. In the grand scheme of things, they are right, and Gideon knows this: People who have to worry about where their next mortgage payment is coming from don’t generally have time to fret about not fully enjoying a gift certificate to Chez Panisse.
But Gideon pretty much beats such moral militia to the punch with her tough self-criticism. “The Slippery Year” is not a long whining road but a sinuous journey – complete with skids and scraped knees – toward greater engagement with life. It’s an excursion that readers will happily share.
Heller McAlpin, a freelance critic in New York, is a frequent Monitor contributor.